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Red Door is a great hangout with a few hang-ups

Bucktown gastropub is pared down to the point of both elegant simplicity and stark discord



Troy Graves has returned to the corner of Damen and Charleston, where he was once chef at Meritage, before it was Duchamp, before Duchamp became Red Door, the new gastropub whose kitchen Graves (also formerly of Tallulah, Eve, and the Algonquin restaurant Montarra) oversees. The red doors—both in front and out back—are said to symbolize hospitality. Through door number one is an elegant, minimalist bar and a little dining area; in its intimacy and its low light it sort of recalls Danny's, the bar across the street, though this is really the only way in which it resembles its scruffier neighbor.

Door number two leads to the patio. This is a patio to spend a summer on, with wood paneling and dangling lightbulbs and a convivial atmosphere. The conceit of the restaurant—"globally-inspired pub fare"—means shareable grub and a broad drink selection. The cocktail list tends toward the fruity—given the season not such a bad thing but for the quality of the drinks themselves. If you're given to spending $12 on a garnish, then by all means try the yuzu julep, augmented with spicy, wonderful shiso leaves. It also happens to contain a 12-year-aged whiskey from Suntory, yuzu juice, gum syrup, and muddled shiso, but the latter is really the only thing the drink has to recommend it. It's otherwise weak sauce, literally, that tastes like watery lemonade. The Commodores Buzz—a dark-rum-based summer drink and, at $9, a relative bargain, though not an absolute one—was similarly one-note, sweet this time rather than sour. On the other hand the beer list is impressive, and a friendly server was happy to recommend a good substitute (the sharply hoppy Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA) when the beer I ordered wasn't in stock. There are also booze snow cones—recently, a Templeton rye manhattan, a Bulleit bourbon old-fashioned, and a mojito made with Grey Goose pear.

The menu is mostly small plates, though if you're not careful you may end up with a meal—the lamb-neck sloppy joe was, after all, a full-on sandwich, and it came with fries or salad. These plates' release from the kitchen can be uneven. One night they came in quick succession; on another visit we got one dish right away and waited so long for the balance of our order that, out of hungry desperation, we tacked on another course, fearful of being underfed. The delay was especially puzzling given that one of the stragglers was a salad, but it turned out to be well worth the wait, and one of my favorite dishes: simply a pile of greens dressed with a killer buttermilk-dill vinaigrette and bolstered by beets and Bohemian Blue, a cheese from Wisconsin's Hidden Springs Creamery.

This is a kitchen that does all right by its veggies; also of note are the spicy kimchi and cool pickles that accompany a buttermilk-fried oyster ssam, and some grilled escarole that went well with buttery ricotta gnocchi.

Come to think of it the kitchen also does well by meat. A hanger steak was rich and well-cooked beneath its blanket of charred-ramp butter; ditto the tender lamb neck in the aforementioned sloppy joe, though after a few bites its overly sweet sauce became hard to handle. Under the banner of meat (yuck, sorry), another dish challenged the salad in the simplicity sweepstakes: a perfect lemongrass chicken thigh atop a pile of grilled spring onions, on a plate strewn with mint and roasted peanuts. It's in this dish that Graves most successfully lives up to the promise in the restaurant's tagline—that globally inspired pub fare—with an easy, internationally flavored plate that lands just where it aims to.

Small plates at Red Door restaurant
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Poutine with chicken confit, Brunkow cheese curds, peas, and curry gravy

This wasn't really true for a handful of other menu items, which combine disparate ingredients to various levels of success. Partly it has to do with salt—overwhelming in dishes like the gnocchi, which the menu promised would also involve "tangerine." That touch of citrus was barely perceptible in a hollandaise-like sauce; golden raisins, also advertised, were AWOL. A starter of poutine was, if this is even possible, light—its french fries crisp, a raft of Brunkow cheese curds atop it satisfyingly chewy, and the thinnish gravy reminiscent of potpie (there were peas, too, and chicken confit) and subtly flavored. Subtle to the point of fault, really—a whisper of curry in the sauce was overpowered by a surfeit of salt.

Other dishes needed tweaking. On a "fava bean pesto toast" that provided the base for a heap of burrata, spinach, strawberries, and pancetta vinaigrette, the berries were insufficient to the task of providing contrast with the rounded fattiness of the rest of the dish. More vinaigrette would have helped too. And a bone marrow appetizer was just frustrating: a slog, and not a rewarding one at that. My companion and I took turns using the small spoon we were provided—also our knives, and practically almost our fingernails—to extract just a few stringy bits of marrow from inside the bone and spread them on some oily toast. There was escargot here too—a fried snail on top of each cylinder—and it felt as pointless as the little dots of gastrique that decorated the plate.

It should be said that the bone marrow appetizer was only five bucks, and among items that are well priced for grazing. Employ a little economic strategy (and stick to beer) and you'll make it out with your wallet intact. On a spotty menu, though, cost isn't the only thing to be judicious about.

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